Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Guest Post - What is winning?

Today's post is a guest post from Annie Balant. You'll remember she helped inspire and motivate me through my half-marathon and now she is telling us about her experience running and training for her first marathon. If you've ever been scared to try something big, or wondered at the end of it why you aren't thrilled, read on! Such a honest account of training for something huge and not being totally sure how you feel about it!

So what is winning, anyway? Do we recognize it when it happens?

Ok, so yeah, I ran a marathon. I should give a little backstory here. I’ve struggled with my weight all my life. I took up running a few years ago, and dropped out of half marathon training because I felt I couldn’t do it. I closed the book on that chapter of my life, and decided I just wasn’t built to run 21k. I was very sad, but I accepted that I just couldn’t do it.
About a year ago, I cautiously tried to put away that conviction and began training in the cold and rain. I ran my first Half in January and was amazed to learn that I, yes I, could do it. I’m not a gazelle! I run like a penguin. But, if you keep putting one foot in front of the other, distances get covered. It just kind of happens. It’s like something out of Tolkien, where you just don’t know where the Road takes you.
Running is not for everyone, but I have to tell you, beating a challenge you really thought was beyond you is the most amazing feeling in the world.

ß After this race, I was convinced I could fly. I went on to lose about 28 pounds. Not an easy task either, just by the way.
So yeah, I signed up to run a marathon and went, ‘OH CRAP, what have I done.’ Plus I committed to raising a lot of money for charity, because apparently I’m something of an idiot (keep that in mind, it comes up again later.) But, well, no point in half measures – I threw myself into the training as best I could. Aaaand, about halfway through, managed to over-train and injure my IT band pretty badly. By badly I mean: not able to do stairs well, not able to run more than 2k without limping home in pain. And this was at a critical juncture when I was supposed to be doing very long runs. Apparently this is not uncommon, by the way.

Anyway, as the big date approached, I was very nervous that I’d set myself a goal I couldn’t complete – I was limping every time I got up from my desk and really concerned that I couldn’t finish the entire race. Plus I also have a significant anxiety issue, and was getting full-on panic attacks. So, how does an anxiety prone individual deal with a big goal that means the world to her? Well, I sought out as much advice as I could find on running psychology. Taking some good advice I found online, I decided to set myself multiple goals, to ease off of the tension caused by an all-or-nothing approach. I’d recommend this approach to anyone facing a new challenge. It really helps put one in a more positive frame of mind.
I thought about it and decided my goals were:
1.     Get to the starting line. I’d raised over $3400 for charity, trained long hours, overcome some injuries (created new ones), ran in the rain, ran hungry, ran lonely and ran when everyone else was sleeping. Getting to the starting line was in itself, an accomplishment. My coach reminded us that once you stand at that starting line, once you cross it, you are officially a marathoner. No matter what happens after that.
2.     Finish 5 miles. You see, I’d had a couple of bad outings in training and I’ve experienced the anguish of simply being unable to run. Lest I sound overly dramatic, I understand this is nothing compared to the anguish others have felt with more pain and greater challenges. But my point is, I knew there were steep hills in the first 5 miles. I knew that my IT band was a mess. I just didn’t know what I was going to be able to do relying on mental toughness, and what might simply not be possible. Finishing at least 5 miles and getting up the first few hills seemed like a milestone worth shooting for.
3.     Finish the half. I actually didn’t want to focus on this too much, as mentally my barrier was around the 21k/13 mile mark. I’ve completed a few Halfs to date, and much as that goal used to seem lofty and out of reach, I knew it was at least possible. I have to admit, I was never seriously considering doing this unless I was absolutely disabled by this point. I’m not a great runner but I can be stubborn as a pit bull with a bone.
4.     Finish the entire race outside the official time of 6.5 hours. I know most people would say ‘who cares what your time is’. I get that. But I didn’t just want to run it. I didn’t just want to finish it. I wanted that official time. You see, they take down the Finish line after a while and open the roads up to cars again. You can run all night if you need to, but no one will be at the Finish line, and no one will publish your time. Would I still be a finisher then? I reminded myself I would be, and I could walk or crawl if I had to. I told myself that this would be a goal to shoot for, and to try to be happy with (particularly when you consider the above points – it was by no means certain I’d get that far.)
5.     Finish the entire race just within the official time. This was the big goal. I wanted that necklace, and I wanted to earn it. Technically, I could have a medical DNF (did not finish) and still get it. Technically I could run an “amended route” which I never saw defined, but was told existed. I imagine that would mean skipping the last long loop (by far the hardest part.) But right or wrong, fair or unfair, I wanted the official time, I wanted to finish under my own steam after doing the full course. I would never judge anyone else, but for me, I knew I would never wear the necklace if I earned it by skipping some portion of the course.

6.     Finish the entire race under 6 hours.
I completed all but one of these goals. I finished the race in 6:23, thereby giving me an official race time and medal. While my time was not great, it’s recorded. I earned my medal. I completed the entire course, step for step. I did each hill and I did them well – not a small consideration for this course.

Why then did I feel defeated? You see, silly as it may sound, I felt awful when I crossed that finish line. Not just in pain (although certainly there was enough of that) but defeated. Like a complete and utter failure.
And no, I would not look at anyone else that way. Anyone else who finished a marathon in whatever time, I would sincerely congratulate and think well of their skills. Nope, this is an issue about how I regard myself. Probably this says something about me (see earlier point about being an idiot.)
For whatever reason, I started to get my heart set on that last goal, and I had 5:45 in my mind for much of that race. I was leading the darn 5:10 pace bunny for much of the race! And as I rounded mile 20, stuff was flat out breaking on me. Giving right the hell out. My IT band was well into that ‘red alert’ feeling of not just pain but weakness. My feet felt like I was running on Lego blocks (regrettably made worse by under-training the last weeks, due to that damn IT band issue.) I think I’ve mentioned this, but I’ll say it again – it HURT.
The pissoff is that I actually had pretty good energy. I never got out of breath. I didn’t feel physically exhausted. Months of cardio at least did that for me – I could have kept going if my legs didn’t give out.  But one thing I was not adequately prepared for was the mental game of long distance running. I don’t think I could have been, this is something that comes with experience alone. You see, I had often heard of ‘hitting the wall.’ I wrongly assumed (I think others tried to tell me, to no avail) that it was a feeling of being tired. Yeah, no. It’s an overwhelming feeling of defeat, of utter failure akin to humiliation. For me, it was the combination of pain, fatigue, injury and probably some messed up blood chemistry following multiple hours of exercise and eating only gels (with a little bit of fruit.) I hadn’t fully appreciated that a difficult physical exertion over a prolonged period of time, well…. it DOES things to your head. And I think I truly hit that wall in about mile 24 or so.

So when I crossed that finish line, I was fully in wall-mode even though I was freakin’ done. I felt so sad and embarrassed, I didn’t get a photo. There’s one picture of me that’s so sad, I can’t even share it.

I didn’t stay and talk with the lovely firemen in tuxes who handed out our necklaces. I’m not making that part up, by the way.    

So what did I learn from all this? Well, a lot! But first and foremost:
1.     You have to believe in your accomplishments. This is something that I’ve been coming to realize as I recover physically from the race. Running a race doesn’t make you a great person, a smart person or an elite athlete. But beating your old limits, not believing in the “can’t” – that is worth feeling good about. That’s the part I want to share. This doesn’t come easy to me, not at all. If you’d seen the fat kid coming in last at track and field at school you would NEVER have picked her to be the one to finish the marathon. But I was that fat kid, and I am that 40-something who has run a marathon. I believe in that accomplishment.

2.     Don’t underestimate the psychology of the challenge – I thought somehow I wouldn’t be subject to hitting the wall. I thought somehow I was going to get out of it (see earlier point about being an idiot. I told you it would come up again.) Yeah, no. It happens to more experienced, more skilled people than me. I didn’t recognize it when it happened to me.

3.     Fall five times, get up six. We all fall. We all get injured. We all make mistakes. Get up. Keep going. Believe in what you’ve done, and what you can do. At some point in my life, I won’t be as capable as I am now. I hope to try to hold on to these feelings so I can keep going.

4.     Whatever it is you believe you can do, you can do more. Did I think I could run a marathon? ARE YOU FREAKIN KIDDING ME? Um, so no, I didn’t think I could. Aaaaand here we are.

Is this the end of my story? I hope not. I still have that 5:45 goal to complete.

1 comment:

  1. Congratulations Annie. I hope we actually meet each other some day as you sound like an incredible young woman